It’s 6:00 in the morning, and my husband, Mark, and I stumble around the kitchen, groggy, waiting for the coffee to perk and the bagels to toast. Our 8-year old, Little J, stomps into the room. He doesn’t answer our good mornings, doesn’t make eye contact, and doesn’t return our smiles. Instead, he yells: “For breakfast I want macaroni and cheese from the day after yesterday and two eggs! Cooked sloppy!” He pauses for a moment, then blurts, “please!” and flits out of the room, off on a mission only he knows, but likely involving PVC pipe, permanent markers, and the dogs.
Two minutes later he returns. “I forgot. Good morning, daddy,” he says, his voice a monotone drone, an octave lower than most boys his age.
“Good morning,” Mark says. “For breakfast do you want mac and cheese and eggs?” We’ve learned that it’s safer to try to get confirmation of Little J’s wants before cooking. That way when he refuses it, cries, screams, or even throws it – which experience has taught us are all possibilities – we can remind him that he not only said what he wanted once, but twice.
Little J hesitates. “Yes,” he says, but his head is shaking no. No. No. No. “Just a minute,” he says, like we’ve been practicing. He looks Mark in the eye and holds his head still. “Yes. I mean yes.”
“Awesome job asking for what you want,” I say. And I mean it. I can’t take things for granted with this child that I would with any other child. Knowing what he wants and asking for it appropriately does not always happen. Some days, yes. But not every day. His sheer unpredictability is highly predictable.
Little J is 8, and this “yes,” even accompanied with the no-shaking head, has been a long time coming. Six years and three months, to be exact. Six years and three months of toddler-like behavior from a child whose growing body and intelligence have often been at odds with his emotions and self-control.
I can’t take things for granted with this child that I would with any other child. Knowing what he wants and asking for it appropriately does not always happen. Some days, yes. But not every day. His sheer unpredictability is highly predictable.
When Little J came to us he was 15 months old, a gorgeous, affectionate boy who sat in my lap for seven hours on the airplane ride home, drooling on my hand, kissing my face with the open-mouth kisses that babies do best, and staring at me and my husband with eyes framed with the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on a baby. Two days before, a judge had granted our adoption in a small courtroom in Voronezh, Russia, and three hours later the babushkas were handing him to my husband and me, calling me ‘mama’ and commenting on the confident way I handled the baby. He couldn’t walk, had no language, was pale as a mushroom, and ate as if starving, but the international adoption doctor who reviewed the videos we sent said he was one of the healthiest children he’d ever seen from Russia. An excellent referral.
He was, and is, excellent. Excellent but different. Excellent, but challenging. Excellent, but hard to handle.
Within a day he was walking, probably held back because of lack of encouragement and modeling, and within three days he was using baby signs like a pro, especially when it came to food. He ate and ate and ate until he vomited, then he ate some more. He was malnourished and anemic and severely underweight but within 3 weeks he had gone up 2 sizes in clothing and by 3 months he had gained fifteen pounds, nearly doubling his weight. Hi head grew 3 centimeters in 3 months. He hit all his milestones in his toddler years like a champ: he quickly became self-sufficient, inquisitive, spirited, independent. He developed the all-important will that makes children of two say “no” to everything…but as he turned 3, and 4, and 5, and now 8…it never left.
That, plus his speed-demon, sensory-seeking behavior, his fearlessness, his rages and tantrums and destructiveness, his teeny-tiny attention span, took us from pediatrician to therapist to psychologist to psychiatrist. The diagnoses flew: ADHD, SPD, ODD, PDD, ups and downs of a cyclical nature (hmm…). Medications were prescribed, tried, failed, and prescribed some more. I read every parenting book, every book about ADHD, SPD, ODD, explosive children, nurturing hearts, love and logic, challenging children – you name it! Through every medication, diagnosis, book, and expert we learned something, used something, and discarded others, until finally we came onto the final diagnosis that made sense: fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Finally, we seem to be at a truce. His behavior has been stable for about a year and as parents we’re starting to wrap our heads around what we need to do to have peace in our home. Maybe we’re in a place of acceptance? More likely, we’ve grown tired and need a break. It’s so hard fighting the battle!
In any case, maybe by reading this you can understand why I say my child is easy to love, but so, so hard to raise. And perhaps because you’re reading this, you have your own easy to love, hard to raise child as well.